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Homily for 18 (B)
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.”
Last week, if you remember, I spoke of how the figure of Moses lies behind the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and how John is keen to point out the parallels between Jesus feeding his people in the wilderness and the miraculous feeding of the people of Israel in the desert. Well, we are still talking about food this week, and today we come to the point where Jesus suddenly makes clear the difference between himself and the great Patriarch who preceded him.
You remember the story in the book of Exodus, no doubt, and, if you don’t, you got a bit of a reminder in today’s first reading. The people of Israel are getting uppity, they are starting to complain:
“Why did we not die at the Lord’s hands in Egypt, where we used to sit round the flesh pots and could eat to our heart’s content! As it is, you have led us in to this desert to starve this entire assembly to death!”
And so the Lord, before Moses even asks him, pours down bread from heaven and sustains them in the wilderness. Having led them to Mount Horeb, where Moses receives the Covenant, the giving of the Law is celebrated by a sort of ritual meal for seventy-four of the elders of Israel in the presence of God himself:
“Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel then went up, and they saw the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was what looked like a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves, but he did no harm to the Israelite nobles; they actually gazed on God and then ate and drank.”
This table fellowship marks a new intimacy in the relationship between God and man, but being human, the people of Israel mess it up. When Moses goes up the mountain and stays there for forty days and forty nights in order to receive more of the Law, the people become concerned and ask Aaron to make a God to march at their head. What follows in the episode of the Golden Calf, the anger of Moses, the breaking of the tablets of the Law and the repentance of the Israelites. Moses returns to the mountain, refounds the covenant with Yahweh and returns to construct the Tent of Meeting where Moses, Aaron and the sons of Aaron will be allowed to enter and offer sacrifice. The easy intimacy of the meal that the elders took with Yahweh seems to have been lost, and has been replaced by the more formal and restricted presence of God in the sanctuary. No longer do God’s people eat and drink with him, until, of course, and this is John’s big point, until the coming of Jesus. Suddenly God, in Jesus, has returned to his people and sits with them again when they eat and drink. The rift is healed. Like Moses before him, Jesus feeds his people in the wilderness, but he goes a lot further: he says, “I am the bread of life.” He is the God who brings food, and he is, in two senses, the food itself. The first sense is this: being the presence of the Father, “Anyone who sees me has seen the Father”, says Jesus to Philip in chapter fourteen of this same Gospel, he feeds the people with the Father by his presence and his teaching. Secondly, through the eucharist, which this miraculous feeding anticipates, he becomes himself the bread of Life which we will be privileged to receive today. In the Christian dispensation, table fellowship with God is restored and we sit at the Lord’s feet and wait to receive the heavenly manna, the bread of life which sustains us throughout the ages.
It is easy, sometimes, not to come to mass and to accumulate in our lives those little betrayals of our faith at which human beings are so adept. It is easy to take for granted the host who presides at this banquet and forget how costly the victory was on Calvary that won for us this new table fellowship with God. But, if we are tempted to set aside our faith, in little or big ways, it helps us to persevere if we remember that we are not betraying, or abandoning, an idea, or a set of principles, we are, rather, denying the love of a person, Jesus Christ, who cherishes each and every one of us and who gave himself up so that we could be fed by God every day of our lives.
“I am the bread of life. He who come to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.” says the Lord.
In those words are expressed all the promises that God ever made to his people, and all the gifts that he ever gave them. When you receive communion, you are called, like Abraham, to be one of a mighty people, you are freed with Moses from slavery, you are fed in the wilderness of life with heavenly manna and are strengthened in all your beautiful humanity to walk to the promised land of the Kingdom of heaven. And this is not just for now, this is for ever, as we shall hear in our gospel in two weeks’ time.
Homily for 19 (B)
“We know his father and mother. How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven.’”
Now, I am going to begin using a story about music. I know, I do this sort of thing quite often, but music is my default way in to those parts of life which are a lot bigger than me. I approach them through prayer as well, of course, but I tend to think of them with musical metaphors. Well, anyway, one day in the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to go to a concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. They were playing the last three symphonies of Mozart. This was a great occasion for me. I had queued at an early hour of the morning to get the ticket, and the seat was in the Choir area of the Royal Festival Hall. I bought tickets there because it was cheap, but it was also good to see the conductor from more or less the same distance as the players saw him and to feel very close to the musical performance. I was very excited. For me, this was like getting tickets for the World Cup Final. When the evening came round however, it was all a bit dull. The VPO was at the end of a European tour and they played in a dutiful but uninspired way until the last two movements of the last symphony. They then played the ‘Emperor Waltz’ by Strauss and really woke up, making me regret that they hadn’t been that involved right from the beginning.
Now, I had a question for myself that evening for which I still don’t have an answer. Was most of the concert dull or was I the one who was dull? I still don’t know, and I still wonder about it from time to time. We do sometimes get out of sorts, after all. Listen to Elijah:
“Lord, I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah is really out of sorts, and is running away from the troops of Ahab and Jezebel, who want to kill him because of what he did to the prophets of Baal. He is afraid, alone and exhausted. The Lord, instead of discussing the matter with him, sends an angel to feed him and guide him. By the time he reaches the Mountain of Horeb, he is in a much better state, but that is another story. You see, whatever condition that we are in, God comes to help us. The classic image of God’s behaviour to us in this respect is that of one who feeds. He is our father, and sustains us in good times and bad, giving us the spiritual nourishment we need to do his will. Our gospel today takes us to the heart of this feeding mystery by reminding us, the people of the eucharist, that not only does this wonderful desire of God to feed his people find its most obvious expression in the mass, but that by feeding us with his Son, God is also drawing us into his own divine life.
“I am the living bread come down from heaven.
Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”
The God who feeds us imparts his own life to us and draws us out of grasp of death and corruption towards everlasting life. This is, let us remember, the God who breathed life into us with his own breath - the loving act of the Creator is now giving its full meaning as human life is revealed as eternal life in God. In a profound way, the promise of Creation is fulfilled in the coming of Christ and the gift of the living bread. God keeps his promises.
But do we? Do we keep our promises? St Paul’s epistle today reminds us of some of the traditional faults of Christians. I don’t think he mentions them because they never happened in the Churches that he visited. What do we have:
Holding grudges, losing one’s temper, raising one’s voice, calling each other names, spitefulness, we haen’t changed much, really, in two thousand years, and, as Paul says, even these habitual venial sins grieve the Holy Spirit. Where is this Holy Spirit of which he speaks? It is inside us, it is the life of God inside us. This is what the Apostle means when he says that we have been marked with a seal. It is the seal of the life of God within us. Let me go back to the story with which I began and suggest that we sometimes find ourselves in situations where it is not the others (in my case, the VPO) who are the problem, but ourselves. We need to ask ourselves if we are letting the life of God inside us be given full expression, or if we are falling back on sinful, selfish desires that have hostility, anger and spite as their expression. I don’t think that was my problem in the concert, exactly, but like every other human being, I am given to seeking to prefer myself to others and using my skills, not for love and service, but for self-assertion and self-defence. The God who loves us gave us himself in Jesus Christ, the fragrant offering and sacrifice. He is the model that we are bidden to follow.
The imitation of Christ to which Paul calls us is not an easy thing, of course, and there are times when we will fail – sometimes, right royally. Then we may be tempted to throw ourselves down before God, like Elijah, and say that it is all hopeless and that we are no better than our ancestors. This, as we learn from our readings today, turns out to be a good thing to do, for we may find that God sends us an angel, or, at the very least, he will love us for our sorrow and feed us with his strength so that we too may stand up, and walk for forty days and nights to the mountain of God. It’s a curious, unworldly thing the life of the Spirit. Here we are seeking to walk to the holy mountain of God, and all the time that mountain is present inside us, yet we need to keep walking, for that is how we will get there.